Football might be the ultimate team sport, but the NFL is dominated by larger-than-life talents -- those players who, through sheer force of skill and personality, seem able to single-handedly drive their squads. A player like that can become everything to his organization, defining its identity and dictating its fortunes. In other words, he becomes the face of the franchise. Of course, though, one man can carry the franchise torch for only so long, as time is a cruel thief. Eventually, the onus falls on someone else.
Looking ahead to the 2014 season, Bucky Brooks has identified the face of each franchise, along with a player waiting in the wings to potentially take up the mantle in the future. Below you'll find analysis for each NFC South team. Click here to access the homepage of this division-by-division series.
The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year is the unquestioned leader of the Texans. He plays with the relentlessness, physicality and toughness that sets the tone of the team, while also providing the kind of spectacular production that frequently changes the outcome of games. Additionally, Watt possesses a commanding presence that makes him a dominant force in the locker room. With Bill O'Brien coming onboard to resurrect a franchise that fell on hard times in 2013, there's no doubt that he is working hand-in-hand with Watt to establish a winning culture on and off the field. Given Watt's success and rapid development as one of the NFL's premier defenders, the rest of the Texans should quickly fall in line under the new regime.
The hype surrounding Clowney's game reached epic levels during the pre-draft process, but the No. 1 overall pick certainly possesses the talent and athleticism to be a transcendent star. The rookie defender is a natural pass rusher with the speed, quickness and burst to create chaos off the edge. While the critics took Clowney to task for his lackluster effort and drop in production in 2013 -- which might have been due to a persistent hernia injury -- there's little doubt that he has the ability to take his game to another level when he decides to flip the switch. If O'Brien and coordinator Romeo Crennel are able to motivate Clowney to consistently bring his A-game, and presuming the defender's recovery from hernia surgery goes as planned, the Texans' young star could surpass Watt as the most dominant defender on the squad.
The top overall pick in any draft is expected to possess the game, talent and personality to instantly reverse the fortunes of a franchise. Luck certainly performed up to that lofty expectation by guiding a team that finished 2-14 before his arrival to back-to-back playoff appearances. Most impressive, Luck has done it by putting the offense on his back, while displaying an advanced game that should make him one of the best at his position for the foreseeable future. From his polished pocket passing skills to his uncanny ability to deliver in the clutch (he's directed 11 game-winning drives and eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 32 regular-season games), Luck is already the epitome of a franchise quarterback in today's NFL.
Richardson's name on this list might come as a surprise based on his disappointing performance last season, but the Colts paid a hefty sum to secure the third overall pick of the 2012 draft. Thus, the team is counting on Richardson to play a major role on an offense that has been a tad one-dimensional since Luck's arrival. Despite Richardson's pedestrian totals in 2013 (458 rushing yards in 14 games with the Colts), he was regarded as a special player in the 2012 class and displayed tremendous potential as a rookie in Cleveland. Given a full offseason to acclimate to the scheme, it's possible Richardson could regain his stellar form and give the team a powerful 1-2 punch that reminds Colts' fans of Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James.
This spot is normally reserved for the top player on the roster, but Bradley has quietly rebuilt the Jaguars into a competitive unit with his positive attitude and infectious personality. Watching the Jags progress in 2013, and seeing their late-season effort and enthusiasm, it was obvious the team bought into Bradley's message. Despite being overmatched at nearly every position, Jacksonville came off its Week 9 bye afire, winning four of five and consistently hanging in games. They've built upon that momentum by adding several quality players in free agency and through the draft. With Bradley's presence and competitive spirit behind it all, the Jaguars are clearly a reflection of their coach at this time.
The team's brass has attempted to downplay expectation for the No. 3 overall pick, but everyone around the league knows that a quarterback taken near the top of the draft is fast-tracked to the starting position in today's NFL. Thus, it's simply a matter of time before Bortles gets his chance to direct a Jaguars offense that desperately needs a playmaker at the position. While some question Bortles' readiness for the gig due to his inexperience and unrefined skills, there's no illusion about what's expected of him: to be Jacksonville's franchise quarterback and live up to his draft billing. To do this, he must outperform fellow classmates Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. More important, Bortles must prove to his teammates that he is the kind of player and leader they can depend on as a burgeoning playoff contender.
The Titans invested their 2011 first-round pick on Locker to become the new franchise face after the Vince Young debacle. While the fourth-year pro has flashed the arm strength, athleticism and competitive qualities to be a franchise quarterback, he's yet to live up to the enormous expectations that preceded his arrival. He has missed 14 starts over the past two seasons due to an assortment of injuries, limiting his overall growth as a playmaker. Given another opportunity to showcase his talents as a starter, Locker must impress early or new head coach Ken Whisenhunt could turn to veteran Charlie Whitehurst or rookie Zach Mettenberger as the bridge to the future.
It's tough to expect a first-year player to replace a former Pro Bowler in the backfield, but Sankey has the skills to be a difference maker in his rookie campaign. The 5-9, 209-pounder is a shifty runner with outstanding balance, body control and quickness. His ability to win with finesse or power on the edges makes him a dangerous threat in the Titans' dynamic, multifaceted attack. With Sankey expected to shoulder a heavy workload to alleviate some of the pressure on Locker and the passing game, it's possible the rookie quickly becomes a household name this season.